Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is a brilliant collection that makes you forget normal short stories.
The most experimental story in her debut–at least in terms of form–is the novella “Especially Heinous,” in which Machado summarizes every episode of an imagined Law & Order: SVU world. She takes the main characters Benson and Stabler into a New York that has doppelgangers named Abler and Henson, occasional possessions, a demon who brings an intern to hell, and ghosts of girls whose eyes turn to bells in the afterlife.
The novelty of the form alone was enough to make me curious. These days, publishing a novella is daring enough (even if you can find someone to print or post it, who’s going to compensate you for it?), but I welcome this well-executed, not quite fan fiction, not really a retelling quasi-synopsis structure. The merits of the story go beyond in the way it’s told. Amid the fabulist elements are very real explorations of the character’s emotional struggles, and Machado manages to juggle the inner workings of the main duo with minor characters like the captain, the D.A., and the priest. “Especially Heinous” is exhaustingly dense, as every other line takes the story to a new fear within a character (or the thing that caused it), and the effort it took me to soak in the story was well worth it.
“The Husband Stitch” is also one of the more memorable pieces, in part because of its easily-anticipated ending. The story explores the ways an unnamed husband ultimately dooms his wife: after years of their sexually-fulfilling, but much-less-emotionally-fulfilling marriage, he literally and figuratively strips her of her autonomy over her body. While it’s easy to say the ending is predictable because of the ubiquity of the story’s premise in horror stories millennials read as children, Machado does successfully build the tension in a way that makes the outcome inevitable, regardless of the expectations you might bring to the story when you start it.
An unsung hero of Her Body and Other Parties, “Inventory” is another story told in a list. The female protagonist in this story outlines the sexual encounters of her life and how they are prompted and interrupted by the deadly and highly-contagious virus spreading throughout the world. Amid her lonely existence, it’s satisfying and calming for the protagonist to list her sex partners and the circumstances behind them because it creates order in her chaotic, sad world. That impulse, the desire to count the times she had meaningful and happy interactions with others, is captured with such truth that I was caught off-guard whenever the plague is reintroduced into the narrative.
“Inventory” could easily be summarized as a post-apocalyptic story of survival, but to say that would be minimizing the best parts of the story and the deeper meaning within it. The layers of Machado’s explorations of her characters, their love and loneliness, their bodies and minds, are what brings her fabulist writing to new heights. The stories aren’t about the fantastic inventions, like plagues and possessions; they’re about people.
By “people,” I mean women. Her Body and Other Parties is a celebration of women’s inner lives and physical forms as much as they are a castigation of those who would use and abuse them – something that is sorely lacking in the masculine-focused world of literary fiction. (I call it “dude lit”–or, when I’m talking about films, “dude movies.”) Another story, “Real Women Have Bodies,” is a powerful addition to the collection as it reflects the way it feels to be a 21st century woman who is treated according to what her body can do for men and what happens when a woman’s body literally starts to fade away. “The Husband Stitch” may be the story that best defies those who would stifle women, not only in its clearly feminist plot, but also in its meta instructions to the reader in case any women want to read the story out loud.
At first, it might seem like using the word “parties” is Machado’s way of criticizing the how women are denied the joy of their own bodies, as everyone is entitled to the pleasure of women’s bodies except women themselves. The women of Her Body And Other Parties have sex – with men, and with themselves, but mostly with other women. More often than not, these experiences are good for the characters, and for the reader: Machado effortlessly balances scenic description without a hint of sleaze. We don’t get a lot of sex scenes in literary short fiction, and there are even fewer scenes in which a woman finds the sexual experience pleasant. That alone is something that challenges trends of toxic, ignorant men in fiction and the weakly-characterized, weakly-written women who follow them.
Thank goodness Machado’s stories are furthermore full of flair to help us break those traditions.
You can find Her Body and Other Parties at your local book store for $16.00, or buy it online here.
“Author Conversation: Carmen Maria Machado & Gina Frangello” will be held on Wednesday, November 29 at Women and Children First from 7:30am-8:30pm. The event is free. Click here for details.